We are a solid two weeks into fall camp, and BBN has been inundated with news. Our parched desire for football is slowly being sated. Soon we'll be able to exchange the drip of the I.V. bag for the full-body plunge into the oasis on the horizon: actual games. Until then, we make due with practice reports coming out of fall camp. The following are some thoughts on camp's emerging themes.
Optimism, My Cup Runneth Over
Open practices bring media reports of a team that barely resembles the ones fielded two years ago. Mark Stoops, always a more candid interview than a lot of head coaches, seems more upbeat than ever. The same goes for DJ Elliot. What do we make of this?
It's tempting to buy into the hype. Losing all the time makes for sad autumn weekends, but no games have been played yet. We're talking about practice. Additionally, catastrophic injury at offensive tackle, running back, or either inside or outside linebacker positions would be a huge blow.
UK is likely being underrated by most circles of non-BBN - I tend to think UK beats South Carolina and Florida - but this probably isn't the year for a "great leap forward" either. South Carolina and Florida will be down, and my (possibly high) expectations are for the 'Cats to beat those teams. The teams that come after will be much more difficult. A 5-7 or 6-6 record still seems more likely than a 7-5 record for a lot of reasons.
UK can be a better team this season, and almost certainly will be, but still finish this season with the same record as last year. Wins and losses are just one measurement, but that's a conversation for another time.
Defensive Playbook Widening
Eyewitness accounts from camps, and a close reading of press conference transcripts, suggests UK's defense has added more wrinkles this season. This seemed like a distinct possibility in April when coaching transcripts suggested they were working on this during spring practice.
Elliot has at his disposal a more athletic defense, and more experienced veterans. At the same time, the departure of UK's best pass-rushers may very well require more innovative blitzing to generate pressure. UK's returning defensive linemen have yet to prove capable of rushing the passer consistently. Stopping the run in limited reps? Yes. Folding the pocket? Not regularly based off the 2014 season. Added depth will help with pass-rush in the fourth quarter, but player development is even more critical. Meanwhile, the secondary better have improved because they could be left on more islands as the result of more blitzing.
I don't expect the new complexities to appear until the South Carolina and Florida games.
Fans love new faces and naturally gravitate towards information on new freshmen. The media, being savvy, responds to the market demand and increases coverage of the new freshmen. Reality can get skewed from there if the primary names being asked about, and therefore the primary names talked about by the coaches, are new guys.
I think it's safe to assume the freshmen, especially those that enrolled early, have a shot at playing time this season. It's no secret that some players out of Stoops' first class are facing a "make or break" year. We should know by November if they've been recruited over, more or less.
At the same time, I think there's more at play. A unifying theme has been true freshmen competing for major roles against older players at the offensive tackle, tight end, receiver, cornerback, and both linebacker positions (to the point that there's now talk of Eli Brown - currently a 205 pound inside linebacker - not redshirting). That's a lot of different positions, but since when have so many true freshmen reportedly been competing with the first team in fall camp under Mark Stoops? Not even in 2013 was that the case. Is the 2015 signing class really a top ten signing class quality that is ready to contribute immediately? I doubt it.
Camp injuries at some positions don't tell the entire story. I think what we're witnessing is a concerted effort by the coaching staff to push their upperclassmen by threatening their spots via camp depth charts and the media. For example, if Fred Tiller doesn't have a great Saturday scrimmage, but Chris Westry has a good day, Westry is now running with the first team. The coaching staff likely feels that in August 2015, they can actually foster an environment of competition and they are going to capitalize. Not just for the starters (i.e. Tiller), but critically, for their 2014 back-ups too (i.e. JD Harmon). That can make the day-to-day practice reports a lot more fluid than they were in the past, but it doesn't mean anything about who the Week One starters will be necessarily.
That doesn't apply to all positions. Obviously true freshmen will play at tight end and offensive tackle, but I wouldn't read too much into media reports on the other positions this far from the season with less than a week's worth of practices in pads. Let's stay tuned.